By Adrian Sparrow
Ever wanted to control your computer with your mind? In the world of neuroscience, this is already possible.
A brain-computer interface (BCI) or a brain-machine interface (BMI), is “defined as a system that measures and analyzes brain signals and converts them in real-time into outputs that do not depend on the normal output pathways of peripheral nerves and muscles”. (source) It’s a communication or control system that allows interaction between the brain and external devices in real-time. Brain signals are detected with a recording interface, such as electrodes on the scalp or devices implanted in the brain tissue, to track neural information and reflect the user’s intent. These signals are then filtered and processed by the computer, before being converted into signals that the assistive device can use and respond to. BCI doesn’t read thoughts, rather, it detects changes in brain activity when the user thinks a specific command like ‘up’ or moves a finger a certain way. There’s often a period of setup and programming where the user must repeatedly think a single instruction or make repetitive movements in order for the BCI to filter which signals are the commands and decode them for use with the interface.
One of the goals of BCI is to replace or restore motor functions to people who have been disabled by neuromuscular disorders, such as cerebral palsy or spinal muscular atrophy. BCI can be used for multiple applications in communication, locomotion, movement and environmental control. For example, people with paralysis can move a computer cursor with their eyes, feed themselves with bionic prosthetics, utilize electric wheelchairs and even control a group of drones by thinking simple commands. As the current applications are still limited and with a small population of candidates, BCIs are mainly used for people with very severe disabilities.
Currently the most common non-invasive BCIs are fMRI and EEG, but only the latter is available to a general audience as it utilizes headsets instead of a room-sized machine. EEG is completely safe, but records noisy signals. Eye-tracking technology is often used as part of the BCI, but has drawbacks due to the fact that measuring eye movements is often slow and imprecise. Using signals from other parts of the brain may resolve this problem, and offer faster and more precise feedback than vision alone. Researchers are still developing non-invasive BCIs that can record as well as invasive applications, however minimal they may be.
However, BCI technology is still largely in the early stages of development, and continues to be researched and funded by U.S. military and other organizations. There are still many risks to be addressed, and before BCI comes into the general populace, developers have to consider the ethics of such technology. Political scientist Anika Binnendijk says “it’s important to analyze emerging technologies from a policy perspective to understand how they might be useful in the future… We have an opportunity to get ahead of the game.” (source) As with most technology, BCI isn’t itself dangerous, but it can be dangerous or at least morally questionable in its applications. Could it be used to grant ‘superhuman’ traits? Could it be weaponized for war applications? What if managers could tell by your brain signals if you were actually paying attention in long meetings?
Brains and computers are already able to communicate, making the stuff of science fiction no longer fictitious. Education will be an important part of integrating BCIs into the general population, and questions of usage, safety and morals have to be considered as neurological technology propels us into the future.